Shelf Life
Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore
By Suzanne Strempek Shea
Boston: Beacon Press, 2004
223 pages. $20.00
ISBN 0807072583

Books about books is a misnomer of a genre name. If these titles were strictly about books, and nothing else, they would be title catalogs threaded with wisps of narratives: “And then I bought this. And then I sold that.” Such flat enumerations would numb the soul of the most passionate bibliophile. The best books about books are about books and people, specifically, about the sellers, collectors, enthusiasts, and oddballs, including the authors themselves. The people must be as interesting as the books. Shelf Life is primarily about people, emphasizing the relationships that a bookstore can foster among employees and customers, and even bridging the canyon between sellers and buyers.
Shea is a writer whose previous book, Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, described her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. Following her recuperation, she took a job at Edwards Bookstore in Springfield, Massa­chu­setts, at the request of friend and storeowner, Janet Edwards. Much to her surprise, the author became an employee of a retail bookstore, stocking shelves, filling back-orders, and arranging window displays. She captures the mundane mechanics of selling new books, including the drudgery, the frustrations, and the job’s greatest satisfactions—answering questions and helping customers.
Edwards’s customers provide the book’s most humorous and illuminating stories.  A woman who needs a magazine article  calls the store and asks, “I don’t suppose  you could… cut out the article I want and mail it to me?” A traveling businessman wants “something I’ll just read and forget.” Shea considers creating a window display—Books That Won’t Make You Think—but discreetly shelves the notion. There are schoolchildren whose excitement about books is not dampened by required reading lists and customers who would sooner skip their morning cup of coffee than their regular shop visits. An older gentleman, awkward and unsure, wants to know how to talk with women or, more specifically, how to rekindle  a romance with one particular woman. “I’ve found the right one,” he says. “I just don’t want to make a mistake.”
Any bookseller or librarian will recognize these characters. These professions are kindred specialties. Both field questions and decipher the wants of their patrons, finding the right book for the right person on the right occasion. They wield empathy and patience to understand what their customers need, especially when their customers aren’t aware themselves what exactly they want.  It inspires the enthusiasm of a guru in Shea.  “I do indeed have what everyone is seeking,” she proudly quips. “Because I sell books.”
Janet Edwards has run the store for nearly thirty years, and her presence in the community is at once rock solid and catalytic. “The customers call the store Janet’s because Janet is the heart, the soul, the furnace from which emanates the warmth, smarts, unflagging energy and goodwill that, despite the rather hidden location, a ping-ponging economy, and big-box competition, keeps the place alive.” Her coworkers (all of whom are women) have a tight-knit symbiosis with the store. It’s not simply a job for them, but a second family, providing close company, emotional support, and potluck dinners. Janet correctly claims, “This is a  family business. We only hire family.”
Shea finds herself in the curious position of being an author in a store selling authors’ wares, straddling several links in the publishing food chain. She surreptitiously uses her position arranging the store’s displays to promote her own titles at the expense of big-name authors like John Grisham, who needs no help moving volumes. When she recommends one of her books to a potential buyer with a modest “I’ve heard it’s quite good,” the woman responds, “Doesn't look it.”
There is another fascinating character  at the center of Shelf Life—the bookstore itself, a destination drawing people of different backgrounds together to learn, exchange information, and interact with each other.  It’s a case study of the bookstore in the ecology of a community. The story of Edwards Books encompasses the story of Springfield, an industrial city in western Massachusetts trying to revitalize itself after industry has abandoned it. Stores like Edwards’s are institutions that form the DNA of a good community, and like the strands of life, they are entwined in its survival.
There are thousands of retail bookstores in the United States, yet comparatively few are so special that they create a sense of  ownership in the community. Shea links  the demise of so many independents to the enormous inventories and influential buying power of chain stores. “All the more reason,” she suggests, “for traditional stores to stress ‘Let me find that for you.’” Small, personal courtesies pay off when customers tell her, “I could have gotten this online for thirty percent off…but I wanted to do business here.” That single statement may point to the major problem confronting many independent bookstores today—and to a possible solution.
Shelf Life is a personal missive from the frontline of the independent bookstore struggle. Shea warmly observes this world and captures her colleagues’ and her own enthusiasm, but doesn’t romanticize it. Bookselling, for all the magic bibliophiles find in it, is also mundane, and Shea’s readers might see how difficult and tiresome running a bookstore can be. Seasons and years pass, children grow up and leave town, catastrophe strikes, wars come, old friends pass on—but as of this review, Shea still works at Edwards Books.

Memoirs of a Book Snake
Forty Years of Seeking  and Saving Old Books
By David Meyer
Glenwood, Ill.: Waltham Street Press, 2001
152 pages. $23.00
ISBN: 0916638545

The malapropism “book snake” is applied to David Meyer by an acquaintance reaching for the word “bookworm.” “Snake” suggests a creature that navigates hazardous terrain and tight corners in a single-minded pursuit of its prey. “You have to be willing to go anywhere, and climb over, dig through, and move around all manners of obstacles to get to the books,” Meyer writes.
As a boy, he accompanied his father  on weekly visits to Chicago bookstores in the 1950s. The chapter, “The Bookmen of My Youth,” remembers them, especially Bill Newman’s Gallery Bookstore and the antiquarian department on the third floor of Marshall Field, “when it was still the great department store it had been for nearly a hundred years.” Meyer also relates the fascinating story of Reinhold Pabel, a German soldier interred stateside during the Second World War. Pabel escaped from his prison camp, married, and opened the Chicago Book Mart before he was caught by the FBI in 1953. He recounted his story in  the 1955 book, Enemies Are Human. “If you bought ten dollars’ worth of books from Pabel,” Meyer remembers, “he offered you  a free copy.”
The book’s strongest chapter is a profile of Margaret Donovan DuPriest. Meyer started his career as a “sometime bookseller” at Maggie’s Old Book Shop in South Miami. She’s truly a character: “As I dusted the books…I read titles and checked contents with an idea toward purchasing books for myself. Maggie frowned on this habit… She did not consider me a customer, and it was the customers, not the help, whom she was saving her books for. She may have also not liked the idea of paying me, only to have the money handed back to her.”
On a whim, she later moved the store north to Greenwich Village and rechristened it the DuPriest Book Shop, and then relocated it a year later to Columbia, South Carolina, where she was disappointed by  a literary life less lively than that of New York. Maggie would be a first-rate protagonist in her own story.
Meyer’s biography is filled with a  similar wanderlust. After college and military service in Vietnam, he traveled the country, hunting for treasures in bookshops and uncommon places. Along the way,  he encounters remarkable titles, authors, and friends, whom he often associates with a particular discovery.
Memoirs of a Book Snake almost falls into the “And then I bought this” class of books about books. Meyer likes to relate his great finds, bargains he later resold for substantial sums, but the real highlights are the fascinating people he meets. Meyer tells a good story and evocatively describes several book people who should be remembered by collectors. The chapters are brief, and so is the book itself, a small five-by-seven inch volume. Unlike many self-published volumes, this is a little book worth scouting.

Pasco Gasbarro